COP27: Israel harnessing DNA of bygone wild crops to enhance food supply

Scientists in Israel are creating a gene bank from the seeds of local wild crops, some which have survived for thousands of years since the birth of agriculture.

 Einav Mayzlish-Gati, Director of the Israel Plant Gene Bank holds a palmful of seeds at the Volcani Institute in Rishon LeZion, Israel November 3, 2022.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Einav Mayzlish-Gati, Director of the Israel Plant Gene Bank holds a palmful of seeds at the Volcani Institute in Rishon LeZion, Israel November 3, 2022.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Could the key to securing the world's food supply for the future be hidden in the DNA of crops from the distant past?

Scientists in Israel are creating a gene bank from the seeds of local wild crops, some which have survived for thousands of years since the birth of agriculture and that may help farmers deal with a harsher climate in the coming decades.

In a eucalyptus grove nestled between an industrial zone and a new railroad under construction, botanist Alon Singer collected seeds from a number of plants recently spotted, including a variety of water mint, that will be frozen and stored at the Israel Plant Gene Bank at the Volcani Institute, the national agricultural R&D center.

Singer is combing the country along with other scouts and foragers in search of varieties of wheat, barley and countless other wild crops so their genetic makeup can be saved and studied before they are lost to expanding deserts and urbanization as the climate warms.

"The plants here are very unique. They are the ancestors of many of the cultivated plants used today," he said.

 Seeds are stored at the Israel Plant Gene Bank at the Volcani Institute in Rishon LeZion, Israel November 3, 2022. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) Seeds are stored at the Israel Plant Gene Bank at the Volcani Institute in Rishon LeZion, Israel November 3, 2022. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Resilient characteristics can be harnessed to genetically modify farmed crops so they better withstand drought or disease.

Sometimes they don't make it in time and a plant of interest falls victim to a new road before its next bloom.

The gene bank

Tens of thousands of types of seeds are stored in the gene bank. It may be smaller than some collections elsewhere in the world but the gene pool here is unique, coming from an area that was part of the Fertile Crescent region known as the birthplace of crop cultivation.

"This is where agriculture started about 10,000 years ago," said Einav Mayzlish-Gati, director of the gene bank. "Species that were domesticated here are still in the wild adapting along the years to the changes in the environment."

The research has already been paying off. For example, the institute has engineered a variety of wheat with an ultra-short lifecycle. It may not be able to compete today, but it could be a saving grace in a hotter climate with reduced growing seasons.

The World Bank warns that global agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Negative effects, it said, are already being felt with hotter temperatures, more frequent extreme weather events, and invasive crops and pests.

Agriculture and global warming will be discussed by global leaders in Egypt on Saturday at COP27, the latest edition of the United Nations' annual climate change summit.